Why Do We Choose to Learn Another Language?

I am an English speaker and I come directly from the big, old town of London. My current location is grand Buenos Aires with its inspiring turn-of-the-century architecture. I am naturally a very curious person which is why I uprooted myself and moved here. Along my journey I have realised the great importance of learning a language.

Why do we choose to learn another language? Well, I can tell you why I chose to do so...

The first stop on my journey took me to Ibiza which is where I had that lightbulb moment whilst standing in a queue for the singer David Guetta. The concert was an absolute "rip" but a girl screaming profanities got me wondering. Whilst I can't mention her exact words, I can say she was very helpful to my language acquisition!

My second major turning point was in Zurich when I met with some friendly locals; the experience again reinforced my vigor to learn. The locals won me over with their kindness and generosity but they spoke avidly in another language, one which was foreign to me. This made me feel slightly isolated from conversation and I craved fluency in a foreign language.

When we travel we open ourselves to new cultures and people. What we don't realise is that we were "living under a rock" the whole time we were in our home country. These two events in my life altered my perception of the world in which I lived.

So again to the question at hand: Why do we choose to learn another language? There are so many possibilities:

  • We want to fit in
  • We are motivated by the challenge in itself
  • It is beneficial for our work opportunities
  • It is a way to increase our social circle and build connections
  • We are lovers of languages
  • We live in a foreign country and we also may have roots there
  • We crave intimacy with a spouse, friend, or family member who hails from a different country and speaks a different language

Those are just some of the few reasons why we learn another language. So moving on to the next chapter, how do we transition from just a wish to turning this into reality? In my story I had several things which had a great impact on me. My first class in Spanish in London was the shakiest. The teacher was intimidating and the atmosphere was tense. I wouldn't go as far to call him a monster but I felt like I was talking to the boogieman. In the class he singled me out for not opening a book which we bought but were never instructed to open one single page. I walked away from that class on a positive note, though. Out of all the Spanish he tried excruciatingly to teach me, his advice was the most solid. He pointed out that learning a language is not just a thing of the moment but a daily commitment, otherwise you can kiss it goodbye. If you think of the 24 hours we have in a day, if we just allocated half an hour to reading, listening, or speaking our fluency would improve. I'm talking about those useless hours we waste on social media such as Facebook and, instead, spend that time investing in ourselves. We can't get those hours we waste back so easily but we can use our future hours wisely.

As I return myself to the story: After classes with a teacher who instilled the fear of God into us, I opted to learn with another teacher. She taught in the direct approach which is drilling phrases, concentrating on pronunciation with some emphasis on grammar and speaking in the target language. It was very eye opening as she forced the target language by speaking so we had to pay careful attention to her exact words. I was on the road to success but after trying out standard classroom situations, I felt something was still lacking. The classes I had to attend were across the city and whilst I had practice, the cost and lack of flexibility in the course schedule just didn't make this way to learn a foreign language worthwhile to me. I didn't renew myself for the next classes and took a different approach.

That approach? I paid a website to teach me Spanish. It gave me the flexibility to choose my hours when I wanted to learn and it was right at my fingertips. I found this method hugely successful because I was able to build my vocabulary, get interested in the history of the language, and history of the speakers. Interest is the key here. This engaged me to keep repeating the routine of half an hour to a few hours everyday almost. The only drawbacks were the voices—which were pre-recorded—sounded robotic, some grammar I believe they should have enforced (but didn't), and more interaction with other users on the platform.

Eventually after working long hours and routinely learning the language I reached a point where I was speaking with others. I used platforms such as Couchsurfing (a website to forge international friendships and travel "on the cheap") to introduce myself and made some lifelong friends along the way. I began seeking out alternative ways to learn through watching TV but they lacked the subtitles. After one month I could understand the gist of most conversations on TV, even if I hadn't fully understood the context. My ears were intrigued by these new sounds. It was another win but it wasn't the finish.

Everybody by now knows that the most successful way to learn a language is from immersion. I did just that and packed up my job and moved myself to Buenos Aires. I live currently with a native who I have known for over a year through my Couchsurfing connections. He is very patient with me. I know other foreigners in this city who live separate to the culture, hanging onto their culture and language back home, and have not achieved immersion and fluency in a foreign language. Every day I am confronted with challenges. It really forces me to think on the fly if I'm going to take a taxi, go to the markets, or catch the bus. I have to get my point across somehow and I have curiosity to know how other people are interacting. My flatmate and I constantly exchange words in English and in Spanish. I am bombarded by a massive flow of phrases and words. The repetition is helping to sink it into my brain on a longer term. I am taking classes on the side to improve my grammar but the mix of living here, staying with a local, and taking classes is giving me a huge lead. I am writing and reading and imagining the words more efficiently.

I think we take some of these skills for granted, the combination of reading, listening, and speaking. In conclusion, to learn a language is not a sum of just one skill. It is zoning in on the other skills too. If we miss the practice of one skill it can have a domino effect on the other skills, say, for instance, reading. If we don't read, how can we improve our pronunciation, our style of speaking, our exposure to phrases and words? How can we contribute our thoughts? If we don't listen, how can we understand conversation? This falls back to reading as we visualise the words to say. Writing helps us pay close attention to express our emotions, which then links to our pattern of speaking, but how can we express them if we aren't exposed to the vocabulary, which then connects back to reading again?

It's a vicious cycle but it's mandatory and hopefully my article has been insightful for other language learners. Immerse yourself to the best of your ability—online, in conversation with native-speaking teachers, or across the world.
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